Dispatches from the Mainstream, 3/15/2013

dispatchesmarch15

Justin Bieber – Beauty And A Beat (feat. Nicki Minaj)

Justin Bieber: human meme. YouTube comments punching bag. Fixation of ironic alt-lit poets. This enigmatic figure known as “the Biebs” has loomed large in our culture for years now, but I’d wager that most people who make jokes about Justin—ie, lazy comedians and jerks—probably never heard one of his songs. Now, the freedom to dismiss things with no basis in fact or personal experience is your right as an American, but maybe we shouldn’t make it a habit to disparage a sixteen-year-old boy just because he’s effeminate and has money.

Anyway, “Boyfriend” marked something of a turning point: people started actually listening to Bieber’s music, and it seems like we all collectively decided that yeah, he was alright. There are still a few troglodytes holding Bieber up as an example of “how modern music is terrible” but we need to ignore those people until they wither away and die or just until they find a new pop star to hate. Hey, have you guys heard of Austin Mahone?

One thing that may have helped Bieber out is, well, puberty. He had the pleasant voice of a choirboy when he first showed up, and unfortunately, he had the charisma to match. These days, he’s at least learned to project a little personality, which helps him out a lot on “Beauty And A Beat”. The song is pretty generic modern-day R&B, dubstep breaks and all, enough that you might think any other singer would fit just as well. But you need someone with an air of innocence in order for these lyrics to work. “Body rock,” “party like it’s 3012”, even the titular line—a play on “Beauty & The Beast” that doesn’t make any sense—would be unforgivable clunkers on a Justin Timberlake record. Hell, they would even stick out on a Trey Songz record.

Nicki Minaj, who also lives on the razor’s edge between real person and living joke, does fine here, though her verse is most notable for the uncomfortable line about drugging Bieber and having sex with him when his girlfriend isn’t around. Just look at how awkward that moment is in the video. Oh, the video is fun, too. The found-footage conceit is silly, but the pseudo-handheld look really works. It’s almost like you’re actually there, partying with the Biebs himself! Gee, wouldn’t that be nice? Actually hanging out with Justin Bieber? Siiiiiiiigh.

Wait, what were talking about? 

Nicki Minaj – The Boys (feat. Cassie)

Speaking of Ms. Minaj, a few months ago she dropped her best song since  “Super Bass.” Minaj has a unique position in pop music, partially because she markets herself as a singer as much as she does a rapper. I don’t mind her actual singing—it’s the definition of serviceable—but I’m disappointed whenever she drops a single that neglects her rapping abilities. Minaj is wasted on slick dance numbers like “Starships” or “Pound The Alarm”. Give her something she can really sink her teeth into and she’ll usually impress. The beat on “The Boys” is perfectly suited to her aesthetic—booming, clacking, but with a bit of weirdness in the form of a bee-like synth squeaking around in the background.

The chorus is unique: Cassie’s dead-eyed and robotic delivery gives way to Nicki’s whining rap (and what appears to be a “Technologic” reference), until the whole beat drops out and is replaced by a gentle acoustic guitar that sounds like it’s from a whole different song—which it is—and Cassie gently croons one of the most sarcastic hooks in recent rap history. Then we’re right back at Nicki’s frantic rapping, which gets pitch-shifted for the double-time final verse but mostly stands on its own without even a single bit of hash-tag rap. A Nicki Minaj verse with punch lines that aren’t delivered after an awkward pause? Yep, believe it, it’s happening. She just came through with the Six, like her name was Blossom! What! I don’t even GET that reference!

But this is more than just a good rap song: this single holds the potential to revive Cassie’s career. I don’t know what happened to her after “Me & U,” but I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her. I mean, how cool does she look in this video? Can she just be back now? Can we do that? Attention world: bring back Cassie. Specifically, bring back the deeply bitter, blazer-wearing Cassie with dyed, slicked-back hair. That would be just great.

Lil Wayne – Love Me (feat. Future & Drake)

Enough girl power–let’s move onto some really uncomfortable misogyny.

The video is required viewing for this discussion, because without it, all we’ve got is late-period Lil Wayne killing time between skateboarding sessions over a synth-based Mike WiLL made it beat. The only interesting part of this song is the all-too-brief appearance by Future, who still has the sort of “lovable oddball” energy that Wayne had years ago. Lyrically, we’ve got your typical anti-woman hip-hop tropes: we’ve got good bitches and bad bitches, and we only care about these women until we’re done having sex with them. Of course, it’s not our fault, no: we simply can’t treat these hoes like ladies; they’ve had way too much sex for that. I mean, what are they thinking?

But the video really elevates (lowers?) the experience to a higher level of objectification. Plenty of rap videos feature women as unspeaking symbols of success and sexual ability, but how many rap videos literally turn the women into animals and put them in cages? The whole theme of the video is vaguely occult—at least enough to bait some Illuminati conspiracy theorists—but it’s not coherent enough to even offer an explanation for why the women are all Dr. Moreau-esque abominations. But this is a rap video, so we don’t really need an explanation, and isn’t that sad? An artist in a different field could actually lose their career over something as tacky as this.

I usually deflect criticisms of violence and sexism in rap by comparing the genre to a good crime movie: you enjoy the abhorrent content not for its own sake, but because of the presentation. I don’t like Reservoir Dogs because a guy gets his ear chopped off, I like it because a guy get his ear chopped off while the villain dances around to a peppy Dylan-esque pop song. Lil Wayne used to be like those guys who make the Crank movies: distilling a whole genre down to a few bizarre images and spitting them out at a blinding speed. These days, Lil Wayne is more like Gerard Butler: appearing in a series of dull projects that present sex and violence in such a variety of bland and awful ways that you just feel gross when it’s all over.

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